Judy Rebick grew up in a time when it was almost universally expected of families to keep everything bad a secret. The theory being that the less said, the more likely it would go away.
For Rebick, who through the 1980s and 1990s was one of Canada’s best-known women’s rights activists, that philosophy worked nicely for almost 40 years.
But at age 45, just before she became president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women in 1990, she began hearing voices in her head, followed by the re-emergence of a repressed memory of sexual abuse by her father that began when she was five.
In her new book, Heroes in my Head, the 72-year-old Rebick writes about her experience with clinical depression and Dissociative Identity Disorder. She spoke to the Globe about how therapy and her passion for activism helped her eventually say goodbye to the 11 “friends” that her subconscious created to help her cope with the long-buried trauma.
What was the first sign that something was very wrong?
In the spring of 1981, I was diagnosed with a clinical depression. After three months of being mostly dysfunctional, I realized I wasn’t getting better and decided to see a therapist, Mark Smith, who helped me a great deal. After about six months, my depression lifted, and at the same time I became more active in the struggle to legalize abortion focused on the Morgentaler clinic in Toronto. But at one session – out of the blue – an angry male voice emerged. My therapist explained it was a dissociated ego state, quite common in people burying part of themselves. What I called “The Voice” talked to me on and off for weeks. It mistrusted everyone, especially men.
You write that you had a partial memory of a well-dressed man and a little girl lying on the bed. He was touching her but you could not see his face. How was the identity of your abuser eventually disclosed to you?
The first time I had a partial memory of being abused was the last day of therapy. I was lying on his couch when I had a vague memory of a little girl lying on a bed and a man touching her in a sexual way. I knew the little girl was me but I couldn’t recognize the man. The pro-choice struggle was getting very intense and I really wanted to be finished therapy so I didn’t say anything to Mark about the memory, telling myself I’d deal with it later. This was 1984, and I got swept up in activism and my job. It wasn’t until the summer of 1989 that the memory came back and multiplied.
What do you think triggered that?
I was helping lawyer Clayton Ruby communicate with Barbara Dodd, a deaf woman whose boyfriend was trying to get an injunction to stop her from having an abortion. I was fluent in sign language, so Clay asked me to help. Something about the conflict in that case triggered my memories. I couldn’t think about anything else. I knew I needed help and called Marcia Weiner, a psychologist I knew from the pro-choice movement. She suggested hypnosis ... and that’s when I saw the abuser was my father. A few sessions later, another male voice emerged, saying, ‘Where’s Jack (my father’s name)?’ He introduced himself as Simon and began to talk to Marcia. I remembered lots of problems I had with my father growing up but I couldn’t understand at first why I would bury the memories of sexual abuse.
Eventually 11 “alters” appeared – other personalities, some as young as five or six, others in puberty, only one a non-Jew and one an adult. Why do you think your psyche created them?
Marcia explained what she called Multiple Personality Disorder (today it’s called Dissociative Identity Disorder), which is a survival mechanism for a child who is being abused. The child forgets the abuse because she cannot tolerate the feelings of shame and fear it produces. In my case, I created alter personalities who took the abuse on my behalf, thus fragmenting my personality and burying anything that I perceived as dangerous behind a concrete wall of forgetting. It’s quite common for victims of childhood abuse to forget into middle age. I had a very productive outlet for my anger through activism so the system of repressing the memories worked for a long time. And then it didn’t.
You write that the “alters” talked to you all the time, but they never came out (or only rarely did) in public. How were you able to compartmentalize?
The alters existed to protect me, so every time a new one emerged Marcia would have a talk with them about how they could only come out in private or they would get me in trouble. But the little ones had a hard time controlling themselves, so we agreed they could come out in front of my friends who knew about my condition. I spent my life compartmentalizing. I had a lot of practise.
You confronted your father in 1992 and he denied the sexual abuse. Soon after, the alters quietly departed. Why?
I think they saw that he was a fragile old man who couldn’t hurt me, so I didn’t need them any more. It also corresponded to the point in therapy where I was beginning a process of integrating them.
What motivated you to write this book?
Writing it was painful at times but also quite liberating and healing. I thought it would help other women to know that someone like me, who most people see as strong and competent, has suffered from male violence and mostly recovered. I also believe our notions of mental health are still quite problematic. We stigmatize, criminalize and marginalize people with mental health problems.
You call this your #MeToo movement. Please explain?
Up to now, #MeToo has focused on the experiences of adult women and certainly I, too, have had those experiences. But childhood sexual abuse is just as important a problem in society and it’s also due to patriarchy. We don’t want to talk about it because it’s too painful, too awful, too icky.... By me talking about it, I hope others will feel free to remember, and tell their stories, even if it’s just to a friend.